Everything returns to the essence. Stare down a Buddhist and they’ll soon divulge: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Science generates from consistency, even while acknowledging the creamy systems in chaos.
In the arts, arguably every work, school, genre, even heresy, remains somehow rooted. In the 1940s, Bird and Monk copped the melodies of pop standards and fractalized them into bebop. Twenty years later and Brit rockers the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin would ramp up African-American Blues and return it back to the states, albeit with a white-washed but no-less-potent elaboration.
So how does a children’s performer source back their Buddha-Bebop-“Whole Lotta Love” inspiration? For Mr. Joe, the answer comes readily.
“I remember having The Lion King soundtrack. And I feel terrible for my mother to this day for just having that thing in the car tape deck. Just playing it over and over again,” he laughs, of his earliest influence.
“Being a kid, that might be the only thing that’s made for you, so you’re down to listen to that over and over again. On the flip side of the tape was Elton John singing his versions of the songs. So I was able to hear the kid songs and versions by this accomplished musician.
While his full title is “Hello, Mr. Joe!” the artist known as Mr. Joe was born 35 years ago in Jacksonville as Joseph Gaskin. Currently working on his last semester of a Master’s degree in Library Science, the longtime employee of the Jacksonville Public Library is also a lifelong musician. Combining his two passions came easily enough.
“I technically became Mr. Joe in 2017 when I moved back to Jacksonville from Denver. Mr. Joe earned his BA in English from University of North and Florida and then moved to Denver for a five-year stay. Once back in Duval, he was hired on as the position of library associate. “I’d do Wednesday story time when we’d pack about 100 folks into the meeting room and we’d have a half hour of fun stories, singing, dancing, and having a good time.”
There wasn’t really a mission, let alone a plan, for Joseph Gaskin to transform into Mr. Joe. If anything, it was a matter of a library employee honoring the energy of a roomful of amped up children and their bemused parents.
“Every library in the city has story time and different programming and you get to see everyone’s different styles,” says Mr. Joe. “I had to develop my own style and I’m a musician; I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years. I wanted to come in music heavy and music-strong with my story times. So I got this little guitalele (a guitar-ukulele hybrid), which is Mr. Joe’s main axe.”
Mr. Joe tested the waters by performing songs by arguably the Bob Dylan of Children’s Music: the inimitable Raffi. But he quickly began penning his own tunes and discovered a new voice as he wrote. “Most folks, when they see ‘Mr. Joe,’ they see a very different person from who I actually am as Joe. People see me as quiet, laid-back, reserved, and chill, and when I do the Mr. Joe stuff I amplify tenfold,” he laughs. “I bring this super energy; my voice goes up about an octave and I’m really just trying to match the energy of the kids. And then I get to be a kid myself. It’s fun. I reflect them and they reflect me. It’s like an echo chamber. They just keep ramping each other up and it becomes this cacophony of singing, dancing, and screaming.”
While some children’s musicians focus on penning practical songs i.e. “Don’t Nap in the Street!” (sage advice for any age), Mr. Joe leans towards celebrating the creative arts. His “Hello, Mr. Joe!” YouTube channel features Joe interviewing local artist Dustin Harewood on site at the Cummer Museum and also collaborating on a song via the de facto pandemic stage and recording studio—videotelephony—with local activist and hip-hop artist GeeXella. The video for his original tune “W Song,” finds Mr. Joe pedaling around town on his bike, sporting his ever-present outfit of tan bib overalls and tan-and-light-blue striped shirt, on a two-wheeled Duval excursion of inquiry, crooning in his smooth vocals and strummed guitalele: “Who, What, When, Why / Where can I find a W?”
“I think people might think, ‘Why am I not writing songs about things that kids like?’ And I think that a lot of people present things to kids, because there’s that idea that this is what kids are supposed to be into, right?” says Mr. Joe, of his view of simply offering the arts to an age group that is innately creative. He believes that children are generally interested in what we “present to them,” yet also equipped to decide what they like. “So the more things that we present, and the more arts and the more ideas that they are given to choose from. That just widens their world and allows them to kind of figure out which direction they want to go in.”
Choosing Harewood and GeeXella as guests on his YouTube channel was specifically curated as well. While his channel features videos ranging from visiting the Jax Zoo and MOSH to a how-to clip on cooking kale chips and story time clips, it’s evident that he loves sharing his passion towards all arts. The clip “Storytime Blues” does just that, serving up an impressive 12-bar blues celebrating the love of the story, all rocked out by Mr. Joe in a library reading room no less.
Since the nascent era of TV cartoon-and-toy merchandising to the contemporary age of eyes-to-screen amusement, children have been tethered to products. While Mr. Joe hardly presents himself as an agitprop kid recruiter, a Trotskyite flyering Sesame Street, his sentiments urge kids to look within and at the world around them, in lieu of staring vacantly at the hypnotic distraction of a QHD screen.
“I see a lot of kids come into the library these days, and they hop onto the computer, and the first thing that they want to do is just play a game called ‘Roblox.’ To be fair, it’s a fairly creative game and it’s not violent. But instead of creating their own worlds, they want to immerse themselves in what’s already offered in the game.”
Mr. Joe surely knows his audience and demographic well. For him, getting the whole family riled up and dancing and singing along during his performances is just as crucial as ramping the kids up into a fun, raucous mood. “Everything I do is focused on primarily being a children’s performer. But I try to go beyond that and to involve the entire family. It doesn’t always work, but once the kids and I create this kind of rapport and energy loop, the parents and grandparents will usually start bopping around as well.”
In person, Joseph Gaskin’s laid-back voice and insightful musings are a far cry from Mr. Joe’s cadence, which raises in pitch and is all unbridled enthusiasm and wide-eyed awe.
“I’ve had surely mornings where I’ll be chilling out and maybe didn’t sleep well, or, and I’m just feeling kind of gross. And you know, not really dreading it, but not ready to perform in that setting,” he says, laughing. “And I see the first kid and it clicks over. I’ll start singing or telling a story, and a kid will excitedly ask, ‘Mr. Joe! Do you like macaroni and cheese?’ How could I be sad after that? I might feel the same way I did before, but it’s not coming back until after the last kid leaves. Typically, my whole day will shift because after story time the endorphins are rushing, just feeling happy. And I carry this good feeling throughout the rest of the day.”
Along with his pre-pandemic library gigs, Mr. Joe had performed at private parties, along with gigs at venues like Fishweir Brewery Company. While his academic studies have taken center stage, he hopes to collaborate with local musicians to finally complete a debut EP within the year. “One of the big goals is to be able to perform at festivals like Suwannee Hulaween. I’m trying to move away from the birthday party gigs and hit the road a bit more.”
Tellingly, “Hey, Mr. Joe!” was ultimately sourced in the library, a place that is a sanctuary for people like Joseph Gaskins: the intellectual, curious, creative, and those seeking a place for quiet and introspection. Gaskin might be of a last, or even final, generation that attended public schools when “Art Day” or music classes were as standard as pep rallies or the imminent, shirtless Scoliosis Awareness Day. Yet when public school budgets get cut—and they always do—arts and music classes are the first sacrifices. There are many schools in America and Duval County that are home to now-vacant media centers with the doors locked, dusty books glimpsed through the window, and the lights off. Spoiler alert: as property taxes play such a great part in education funding, these schools are never in moneyed areas. The message is clear: reading and creativity are worthy of erasing while education has been reduced to training.
“I think that is a reflection of a one-size-fits-all school models, where there’s a single path and everybody has to study the same thing: we just have to focus on math and science,” says Mr. Joe. “We forget art and we focus on testing. And without the need to explore their own interests, some kids get lost and some remain lost. Because they still need to have that initial introduction, they need to have some sort of outlet, they need to be given a trumpet at school in order to want to go back to sit and figure out some other stuff at home. And I don’t mean just figure out the trumpet. I mean to figure out their place in life through playing that trumpet. We need this.”
This feature originally appeared under the headline “Sing a Simple Song” in Void Magazine’s April 2021 issue.